Ah, taking a break: It’s a tale as old as…well, at least the third season of Friends. But, does the strategy ever actually strengthen a relationship, or is it more so a tactic for delaying the inevitable (read: a full-blown breakup)?
Short answer: It depends—and on a lot of different variables. For instance, how serious are you and your partner? And, is the reason for the break a clear and present problem? While teasing out these answers isn’t always the most straightforward of tasks, first understanding an expert’s definition of what a break is can help you ensure you’re never in Ross Geller’s boat of bemoaning, “But we were on a break!” to anyone with ears. “An effective and functional break involves an agreement with terms and conditions,” says relationship expert Susan Winter. “Both parties acknowledge that they’re still a couple and still exclusive, but have embarked upon doing the interior work needed to bring their relationship to a better place.”
Below, Winter advises on when a taking break might just be a helpful—necessary, even—choice and also how to navigate actually going on one.
When taking a break in a relationship can be productive
If you two are serious and you’re facing a real, tangible problem, yes, a break can help. “Breaks are taken in an effort to correct a major flaw within the relationship,” Winter says, adding that without a major flaw, there’s not really a huge point to them. “There’s no reason to take a break if everything is good.”
Below, she gets into specifics to help guide you through the decision of whether or not to take a break, no matter what kind of relationship you’re in.
With a new partner
If things have going pleasantly enough with your new beau after five dates, but you’re just not feeling like there’s a strong chance for a future together? There’s not necessarily a major flaw to fix (or a serious relationship on the table), so don’t go on a break. Rather, consider whether it might just be time to just pull the plug.
With a live-in, serious partner
“Time apart to pursue individual hobbies and goals is important,” Winter advises, adding that it’s possible to nurture personal growth while sharing an address. “We need to keep our identity intact when merged with another. And we need to keep fueling our dreams and fulfilling our lives.”
What this understanding doesn’t necessarily require, though, is a break, she says. Retaining a partnership while tending to personal interests can happen simultaneously “unless there’s a palpable imbalance or issue at hand.”
With a spouse
If you’re considering a legally recognized break—a separation, with lawyers and paperwork, and the like—more forethought is certainly required because the choice calls for the intentional devotion of time, energy, and money. Also important to consider is the cause for the separation or break. Is it to provide some space in the relationship to see whether distance may make the heart grow fonder? Or was there a big breach of trust, like an infidelity? If the latter, take a deeper look at your union, and consider the other factors enmeshed in whatever choice you make, be it a home, children, or pets. Because of these things, filing for divorce may not be your automatic go-to, and taking a break may feel more feasible.
“A purposeful break with the advisement of a therapist can be extremely helpful in gaining clarity around your marriage.” —Susan Winter, therapist
“[Taking a break] can be a necessary step in order to regroup and reassess,” Winter says. “But it should be done with foresight and structure. A break just to get away from each other is ineffective. A purposeful break with the advisement of a therapist can be extremely helpful in gaining clarity around your marriage.”
A few guidelines to follow regarding going on a break
Winter points out that there’s a very fine line between “taking a break” and backpedaling toward an exit. So be sure not to confuse a break with slowly fading out your relationship. The following four tips about what a break actually is can help safeguard you.
1. True breaks don’t involve seeing other people
This guideline depends on your baseline relationship agreement. If that involves any kind of non-monogamous component, this rule doesn’t apply since seeing other people may not be a breach of your understood partnership contract. But, if that’s not the case for you, a break should not be about any partner sowing their wild oats.
“If your partner needs this form of exploration, they’ve already got one foot out of the door,” Winter says.
2. True breaks are for a set amount of time
Make sure that the timeframe during which you’ll be separated from one another is agreed upon in advance—whether it’s two weeks, a month, three months, or any other measure.
3. Contact versus no-contact rules are pre-established
It’s not necessarily essential whether you opt for contact or no contact. What does matter is that you firmly set up the rules before you separate.
“Clarity around the point of contact and engagement is very important,” Winter says. “Do you feel it’s helpful to text each other during your separation? Will this add anxiety, or alleviate anxiety? Do you both prefer a no-contact rule for a certain amount of time? These are joint decisions, not demands.”
Compromise is key, even when your partnership is on the fritz.
4. Establish the task to be achieved in each other’s absence
Just to reiterate, there needs to be a clearly defined cause for the break. If you’re feeling bored with your partner, or you’re not attracted to them anymore, or something else is wrong but nebulous, figure it out or pack your bags. Without a clearly defined reason for a break, there’s little any party can do to improve.
“You’re separating for a reason,” Winter says. “That reason should be clear to both of you and definable.”